After church last Sunday Pastor Walter Mitty drove up to Manitowoc to spend a few days with his sister-in-law Susan and his two nephews, Brian and Matt.
Monday evening the weather cleared up enough to grill bratwursts in the backyard, heat up some German potato salad, and have a New Glarus beer or two.
After the boys had gone off to do their own thing, Susan got serious and said to her brother-in-law, “Walt, you know more God than I do. There’s something that has been bothering me, and I need to hear from someone who’s smarter than I am in these things.”
“Wait a minute, Susan,” Mitty said as he placed his Spotted Cow beer on the picnic table. “I don’t know more about God than you do. I know more about religion, and that’s a big difference.”
“OK,” Susan replied. After formulating what she wanted to say for a moment, she continued by saying “You know about that new law in Alabama?”
“The one about abortion?”
“Yeah. Well it has been bothering me.”
The pastor of Poplar Park Community Church waited in silence.
“You know,” she began, “that I voted for Donald Trump. I never liked the man, but he promised to appoint judges who would roll back Roe vs. Wade, and that promise made me vote for him, even though I held my nose as I entered the voting booth.”
“So that new law in Alabama should make you happy,” said Mitty as he got into his pastoral counselor mode.
“I know,” Susan continued, “but it doesn’t.”
Again a few moments of quiet.
“It just feels bad to me,” she explained. “See, abortion has always felt wrong. I mean, it’s ending a human life. But what happened in Alabama feels wrong, too. I mean convicting a doctor who performs an abortion of murder and putting him in prison for life feels way out of proportion.”
“That’s how a lot of people form their opinions on abortion,” thought Pastor Mitty, without saying it out loud to Susan. “It just feels right or wrong. It’s based on intuition more than anything rational.”
And, he admitted to himself, that’s how he was dealing with the issue himself.
The problem for Pastor Mitty was that there were so many conflicting voices in his head, and because each made at least some sense, he couldn’t make up his mind.
On the one hand, he empathized with his sister-in-law. From the moment a sperm unites with an egg, an embryo is formed with its own DNA that is distinct from either the father or mother. At that point, it’s certainly not viable apart from its mother, but there is something unique there, something holy.
He thought of his brother Herman, how he took a year’s leave of absence from the church in Poplar Park to help Susan take care of him as he was dying of cancer. Herman, at the end, couldn’t survive outside of the womb of their care either. He was even dependent on his brother and wife to feed him.
Remembering that concrete experience of taking care of his brother made him think of what Fr. Sullivan, his Franciscan friend, had told him about what Catholics teach about the right to life. Fr. Sullivan said that the late Cardinal Bernardine had talked about the issue of respect for life as a seamless garment. Whether you are dealing with war, capital punishment, euthanasia, the poor or immigration, he said that to be ethically consistent you have to see every human life as having inherent dignity—before birth as well as after.
Another voice was that of Johnny Christian, who on his Sunday evening broadcast had pounded the pulpit as he roared, “The term ‘rights’ is not mentioned once in any of the four gospels. Jesus talks a lot about exchanging the god of this world for the true and living God, but nothing about rights. The god of this world talks about the quality of life. The god we worship talks about the sanctity of life.”
On the other hand, he remembered how Bernie Rolvaag, the owner of History/Herstory Book Store, had once noted that for most of human history, it has been men who had power over women, and that Roe v. Wade is basically about empowering women to have the same control over their lives as men have had since the beginning of time.
When the subject of abortion had come up at the coffee hour at church a few weeks ago, Sharissa Hawkins had reminded everyone that men have no credibility when they talk pro-life language.
“Men!” she hissed. “They are all on board when it’s time for conception, but nowhere to be found when it comes time for the birth and raising the kid. One fourth of our kids are being raised by single women.”
And later that day, when Mitty told his neighbor what had happened at church that morning, Michael said, “You know Walt, in a perfect world there would be no abortions. But the world we’re living in is far from perfect, so if abortions are legal, at least there won’t be back alley procedures and lots of women dying because good care was not available.”
As he had often done since growing up in Manitowoc, he went down to Lake Michigan to watch wave after wave roll by him, hear the sea gulls squawk and think. After an hour of spiritual wrestling, he decided that Bill Clinton, of all people, was right when he said that abortions should be safe, legal and rare. “If Roe v. Wade is overturned,” he thought, “it won’t be safe and legal, and over 800,000 a year in this country is a long way from rare.”
When he got back to Susan’s house he had to tell her that the only response he had to her question was more of his own.